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Security Sector Reform and the Commonwealth: An Introduction

How Commonwealth countries can support SSR throughout the association and beyond.

Headlines have been dominated by the violence that erupted in Sudan in April due to clashes between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In the months leading up to the crisis, analysts called to reform the army and RSF by placing them under civilian control.[i] The current state of instability has therefore underscored the importance of security sector reform (SSR). This piece re-affirms the need for SSR and also investigates successful examples of SSR within Commonwealth countries, concluding with policy recommendations.


What is security sector reform (SSR) and why is it important?

SSR is the process of reforming the following institutions: the police, military, intelligence services, the judiciary, and other bodies that form part of the ‘security sector.’ SSR also addresses non-state armed groups in nations impacted by civil conflict.[ii] SSR is typically enacted during transitions from peace or democracy and is implemented by the government, often with support from international actors.

The goal of SSR is to establish security institutions that uphold rights and operational efficiency. To accomplish this, various measures are implemented, such as subjecting institutions to the authority of elected officials to strengthen civilian oversight; reassessing the allocation of funding to the sector; and enhancing the effectiveness and professionalism of forces through training.[iii]

Improving the sector in these ways is thought to enhance stability. Ensuring security personnel respect rights can prevent oppression and enhance public trust – and with it state stability and cohesion. SSR can also enhance the efficiency of security agencies, enabling them to effectively address threats like insurgencies, extremist groups, and criminal organisations. The ability of local security forces to counter these threats should also be seen as important for international actors, as criminal and politically violent groups can create challenges at border regions and may have an international reach.[iv] Integrating women in the sector and offering gender training to forces can also diversify perspectives among personnel and ensure they are aware of gendered early warning signs of conflict. Integrating gender therefore fosters more responsive and efficient security agencies, contributing to national stability.[v]

Examples from the Commonwealth

In examining SSR within the Commonwealth, two countries stand out as notable success stories: Sierra Leone and South Africa. Sierra Leone underwent a comprehensive SSR programme after emerging from a decade of brutal civil war in 2002. These reforms are seen as pivotal to the country’s successful transition from conflict.

Copyright:AU UN ISTPHOTO/David Mutua

Several reasons have been cited for the effectiveness of Sierra Leone’s SSR programme. First, the programme was conducted with sustained international assistance, particularly from the UK. British police supported the establishment of Sierra Leone’s police force through training and regular meetings with officers.[vi] The UK also offered grants to civil society organisations to assist them in monitoring and collaborating with the security sector.[vii]

Other policies viewed as successful include the Sierra Leone government conducting a thorough security sector review to establish a long-term roadmap for reform and identify any barriers to the implementation of the plan.[viii] In addition, national police used local needs policing and regularly met with local communities and grassroots organisations. These policies helped build trust between security agents and local communities after the conflict.[ix] Finally, the country’s disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) scheme was particularly effective and had a high rate of participation, enabling over 60,000 combatants to be reintegrated into civilian life.[x]

South Africa’s transition from Apartheid is also seen as an effective period for that country’s SSR. Following Apartheid, South Africa adopted a truth and reconciliation commission, allowing individuals to recount the abuse they had endured at the hands of security personnel. This process is thought to have contributed to trust-building and improved transparency around the actions of state agents during the regime. Moreover, through truth-telling, the commission is believed to have offered a sense of justice, which may have averted victims from enacting revenge against security personnel. At a more tangible level, the commission used its findings to offer numerous policy recommendations for security sector transformation.[xi]


Other policies pursued in South Africa included training programmes for forces, the removal of any personnel who violated human rights, and a new constitution that clearly defined the role of security institutions. Moreover, while designing the reforms, the government consulted numerous experts, such as lawyers, domestic peace researchers, and human rights activists. Carrying out these consultations ensured the involvement of civil society in security sector oversight from the start.[xii] Finally, the government appointed women to senior positions in defence leadership where they were able to promote gender initiatives.[xiii]


International stakeholders should provide assistance: Support should extend beyond financial aid to include other activities like training and consultations. It is also critical that countries provide sustained support. States that have undergone successful transformation, like Sierra Leone and South Africa, can provide valuable guidance to other Commonwealth nations.[xiv] The Commonwealth could serve as an ideal platform for forging these partnerships between different countries. However, it is essential to tailor international support to local contexts.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach: Imposing uniform programs may place unrealistic expectations on countries, straining their ability to meet requirements. This can lead to increased dependence on external funding, undermining local ownership. Support should therefore be provided with an understanding of local contexts, recognizing that some measures may not be universally applicable and may place greater strain on a country recovering from war or autocracy.[xv]

Conduct ongoing reviews: The Sierra Leonean experience underscores the importance of conducting regular reviews of the security sector both prior to and after implementing reforms. Ongoing assessments, with involvement from local civil society actors, ensure transparency and civil society ownership over security agencies. Reviews should monitor areas like budget allocation, compliance with human rights, and emerging security issues.[xvi]

Prioritise local ownership: Effective and sustainable SSR requires activities that are responsive to local needs. Involving local civil society actors in monitoring and post-donor support is crucial for sustaining reform efforts.

Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR): Where necessary, it is important to include comprehensive DDR programmes for former combatants. States hoping to implement these programmes could consult with countries like Sierra Leone about the success of their DDR. These programmes should also incorporate women combatants. Doing so prevents the stigmatisation of former female fighters often face when they re-enter their communities.[xvii] It could also help these women (as well as men) utilise the skills they gained as combatants for the country’s benefit, either by contributing to the economy or as members of official security forces.

Establish Commonwealth Initiatives on SSR: The Commonwealth’s breadth of experience and diverse cultural understanding underline the immense value the association can bring to SSR efforts. A pool of experts, of corporate knowledge, and resources to encourage SSR, should be central focus points of Commonwealth efforts. Through leveraging the Commonwealth’s pulling power and collective weight, SSR can be more effective in countries both within and outside the association.


[i]Benjamin Mossberg, ‘As Sudan’s Transition to Democracy Accelerates, Reforming the Security Forces Must Be a Top Priority’, Atlantic Council (blog), 12 April 2023, [ii]DCAF, ‘Security Sector Reform: Applying the Principles of Good Governance to the Security Sector’, n.d. [iii]Mark Sedra, ‘Security Sector Reform 101’:, n.d. [iv]SIPRI, ‘The Challenges of Security Sector Reform’, 2002, [v]Jennifer Howe, ‘Progress and Challenges to Implementing Women, Peace and Security in Southeast Asia’, Issues and Insights 22, no. 1 (2022), [vi]Aline Leboeuf, ‘What Is a Good Security Sector Reform?’, 2017. [vii]CSG Papers, ‘The Gradual Emergence of Second Generation Security Sector Reform in Sierra Leone - Sierra Leone’, 13 February 2017, [viii]Peter Albrecht and Paul Jackson, ‘State-Building through Security Sector Reform: The UK Intervention in Sierra Leone’, Peacebuilding, 2014, [ix]CSG Papers, ‘The Gradual Emergence of Second Generation Security Sector Reform in Sierra Leone - Sierra Leone’. [x]‘The SSR Experience of Sierra Leone, a Shining Model in West Africa and Beyond’, UNOWAS, 18 August 2017, [xi]Sandy Africa, ‘The Transformation of the South African Security Sector’, n.d. [xii]Albrecht and Jackson, ‘State-Building through Security Sector Reform’. [xiii]S. N. Anderlini and C. Pampell Conaway, Security Sector Reform, 2007, [xiv] ISS Africa, ‘South Africa Should Make Its Mark on Security Sector Reform’, 3 December 2020, [xv]Nadine Ansorg, ‘Security Sector Reform in Africa: Donor Approaches versus Local Needs’, Contemporary Security Policy 38, no. 1 (2 January 2017): 129–44, [xvi]World Bank, ‘Security Sector Reform and Conflict Prevention’, 25 April 2018, [xvii]Rebekka Friedman, ‘Remnants of a Checkered Past: Female LTTE and Social Reintegration in Post-War Sri Lanka’, International Studies Quarterly 62, no. 3 (1 September 2018): 632–42,


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